Masters contender

Jordan Spieth in the hunt at The Masters. Image: The Masters website

Stacked field for RBC Heritage

There will be no let down from the year’s first Major as the elevated RBC Heritage gets underway with a superb field this week.

Masters contender

Jordan Spieth in the hunt at The Masters. Image: The Masters website

There will be no let down from the year’s first Major as the elevated RBC Heritage gets underway with a superb field this week.

Enveloped as you are by a wide spread of a welcoming citizenry that is there in force at the first tee, and as captivated as you are with a wind-swept view of Calibogue Sound strolling up the 18th fairway, it’s hard to think of Harbour Town Golf Links in terms of being confining.

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But that word comes to Patrick Cantlay’s mind when he explains why he loves coming to this week’s RBC Heritage.

“It’s so confined,” Cantlay said. “The trees shape every hole.”

Cantlay, who lost a playoff to Jordan Spieth a year ago, has done everything but win in his visits here. Starting in 2017, Cantlay had a three-year run when he was T3, T7, and T3.

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“It’s one of the iconic golf courses on TOUR,” Cantlay said. “I really like the golf course.”

But whereas Cantlay gushes about Harbour Town and insists “I feel like I have a good gameplan for it,” many players admittedly are trying to make a quick study of this brilliant design that is owed to the genius of Pete Dye, who worked with a younger Jack Nicklaus to introduce Harbour Town in 1969.

PGA Tour’s best are ready for RBC Heritage

Of the 143 in this week’s field, 29 competitors have not played at Harbour Town, a list that includes the world’s second-ranked player, Scottie Scheffler. Throw in the fact that three other members of the world’s top 10 – No. 1 Jon Rahm, No. 7 Max Homa, and No. 9 Viktor Hovland – only played it in the 2020 season when the RBC Heritage served as the second tournament back from the 11-week break during the pandemic and you have a rare week on TOUR where players are using practice rounds as a college cramming session.

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Perhaps that explains why so many veterans – Adam Scott, for instance, whose only visit here came in 2001 when he was 20 – were engrossed in studying the course and not tied to the range.

Spieth can commiserate. He was there in 2013, a 20-year who had recently left the University of Texas to turn pro.

“I wasn’t in the Masters the week before and so I got in early. I thought learning the golf course was very important,” he said. “You can run into trouble pretty quickly as the course firms up and you can be in the fairway but be blocked out.”

Then a very young, but very much a sage, Spieth earned Special Temporary Membership four tournaments into the season, then three starts later he was T9 at Harbour Town. Spieth moved to 175th in the Official World Golf Ranking, and the ride has been a glorious one, including six trips to Harbour Town, which he likes very much.

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“It’s just a course where you have to pick it apart tee to green, based on where the hole location is,” Spieth said. “You have to really think your way around.”

Harbour Town is a place the pros love

That aspect of Harbour Town, the shot-making and the course management, is a strength of Gary Woodland’s game, so he does bemoan the fact that it’s only his third visit here and explains why he was rushing to play on a pristine day.

“Butchy (Woodland’s caddie, Brennan Little) is always telling me that he thinks Harbour Town is a good golf course for me,” said Woodland, who played in 2013 and 2020. “Guys who win here lean heavy on ball-striking and iron play, and that’s where I’ve made my career.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a PGA TOUR golf course with smaller greens, which Woodland suggests plays into his game. He’s ranked 20th in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green (+.622).

Echoing a sentiment that so many others espouse about the glory of Harbour Town, Woodland loves that “you have to work the golf ball in both directions.”

Not many of his colleagues would disagree.

The defending RBC Heritage champion is Jordan Spieth. Image: PGA TOUR website

“You are kind of forced to (work the ball both ways) via trees,” said Spieth, who unquestionably has supreme creative skills. “I’m sure there are plenty of winners here who only had to move it the other way once or twice, but yes, in order to get to all the pins and really position yourself the right way, it requires pretty much both ball flights.”

Two days after winning the 87th Masters, his second major, Jon Rahm was spotted at the far end of a practice range that befits the Harbour Town persona – it’s cozy and warm. Striping iron shot after iron shot, Rahm looked loose and enthused to be here for just the second time. He finished T33 on trips of 71-67-66-68 when the tournament was held in June because of the pandemic, but reportedly the world’s top-ranked player was here long enough to judge it as one that was to his liking.

That could be owed to Rahm’s precision with his irons and lofty standing in SG: Approach to Green (fourth, +1.002) and Greens in Regulation (third, 72.73 percent). Those are the sort of strengths that work well here, but for others who might not possess Rahm’s prowess and who are new to Harbour Town, Spieth offers this:

“Fortunately, having played it, I think it’s a significant advantage (to know it),” he said. “It’s a harder one to learn quickly.”